Tuition fees, student loans and university leadership


In tune with many of his colleagues in such high office, the President of University College Dublin has recently spoken in favour of tuition fees and a student loan system as a means of dealing with the financial uncertainty and low-funding base of Irish higher education. For those with the responsibility of balancing the books, the temptation to advocate for a system that guarantees a steady and decent income for the institution, that in time might not only meet the basic bills but even provide scope for expansion and development, is of course strong. However, it does raise many moral, economic and political questions that such advocates would probably rather side-step by pointing to examples of where such systems are already embedded, such as Australia or parts of the UK (from which that particular President hails), and indeed Ireland is forever in England’s shadow with the voice of the BBC overspilling into our living rooms and the constant shuttling back and forth of family members.

Quieter though, is the voice of Scotland, which despite protestations of many within that country, is viewed externally as a mere region rather than a fully-fledged nation. Our (Irish) government ministers after all rub shoulders with colleagues in ‘real’ states most of the time and for Scotland, for the moment, that means the UK government. Many’s the time I’ve been at international meetings on education and listened to the ‘UK view’ presented by an MP or Lord/Baroness without even the slightest flicker of a mention that there are different systems in play in that ‘united kingdom’. The fact that fees for higher education were abolished in Scotland is both an ‘inconvenient truth’ and an embarrassment not just for the current UK government, but also for its ‘loyal opposition’ whose argument is not over the principle of fees but rather the particular rate at which the ticket price should rise.

But let’s not get too parochial and obsessed with our little archipelago of states and states-to-be. More broadly, across Europe, free higher education is the norm. Yes, there are variations in participation rates. Yes, there is inequity in terms of grants for living costs. Yes, many systems have a low funding baseline. But, there are some fundamental issues of moral and ethical standpoint that are all too often elided in the “let’s be realistic” narrative that’s shared by the likes of the Presidents, politicians and many members of the public.

So let’s rise to the challenge and, indeed, let us be ‘realistic’.

Is it realistic to expect that charging individuals for education will yield a society that is fairer and more equal? Is it realistic for governments to cut core funding, year on year, for public services and expect there to be few long-term implications? Is it realistic to think that these are necessary steps that need to be taken whilst we wait for the next economic boom to spontaneously burst into life? Is it realistic to expect that those saddled with a lifetime of debt and job insecurity will avoid depression, disaffection, default and emigration? Is it realistic to expect that our new ‘customers’ will be happy to pay for increased senior salaries, shiny new research labs and globe-trotting, whilst they are herded into large enrolment classes have their assignments marked by computer and are taught by even more indebted postgrads and zero-hours contract staff with a (legitimate) grudge?

The choice of funding model for higher education is as much a moral, ethical and political one as it is economic.

Presidents will of course claim that they are simply being pragmatic, that in an ‘ideal world’ they wouldn’t be pushing for this approach. That, however,is the point. We are indeed not in an ideal world, but the question is, in such circumstances what it is the morally right choice; what can be done to improve the society in which we live? Each of us, has limited scope to make a real difference, but those of us who do have a voice, surely must feel a moral obligation to speak truth to power.

Many academics also support fees, in part for the same reasons as the Presidents, but also using the argument that somehow this will resolve the issue of the lack of student intellectual engagement in study; that because they will now have to pay for their education, they will ‘take it more seriously’. I fear that this is a combination of naivety and of conflation of separate issues. Some staff haven’t fully grasped (or perhaps, haven’t welcomed) the notion of mass higher education and its implications for student diversity, nor are fully aware of the messy reality of the lives of contemporary students. The imagined notion of an elite institution (either with dreaming spires or with state-of-the-art laboratories, depending on your discipline) still has an appeal for many academics, some seeing where they happen to be working as one of the many steps on the ladder of success as they make their way towards that impending offer from a ‘top 100′ institution. Dealing with students that need and expect support gets in the way.

Academic engagement, participation and ‘deep learning’ depend on so many factors, and are complicated by age, learner maturity, social and economic circumstance, peer group, pedagogy and assessment methods, etc, and there are many studies that point to the alienation felt by undergraduate students enrolled in large cohorts, unmet learning support needs, and courses that presume a level of autonomy and self-efficacy that might be rare in any group. These problems are not exclusive to countries with no fees. Far from improving commitment to learning, charging substantial fees may well worsen the situation in terms of students’ expectations. Institutions themselves acquire an increasing dependency on high ‘ticket price’ and ‘bums on seats’ (to use two of the common cliches), in part to feed ambition, but mostly to compensate for the commensurate rapid reduction in state funding that accompanies the introduction of fees+loans systems.

The other frequent argument for fees, is that old one of whether education is a public or a private good. Often connected to this is whether or not those ‘who can afford it’ should be paying — why should relatively well off families have the benefit of no fees when they have the wherewithal to make a contribution? The implications of these types of argument against ‘universalism’, need to be carefully thought out, especially so in the current context of widening wealth gaps and the extensive ‘unbundling’ of the long-established social contract that has held many European societies together for much of the twentieth century. The notion of charging those who can afford it, whilst offering ‘subsidies’ to the poorer, eats away at social cohesion and leads in the longer term to questioning of who is deserving of support and who isn’t.

Of course, it could be argued that policy makers and advocates for fees+loans are also so fixated on the short-term funding gap and neglect the longer term difficulties that will accrue to many individuals and the economy. Witness for example the two current narratives that (a) graduates will earn more that others, and (b) graduate level unemployment is on the rise. As we know, moving to a mass (or even ‘universal’) system is likely to remove the ‘graduate advantage’ and then there is pressure on particular academic disciplines that are deemed not appropriate for employability, as well as a shift towards the need for Masters level and other post-graduate qualifications as the system adjusts to feed itself. However, the level of personal indebtedness rises and there is little or no incentive for the universities to concern themselves over this as they have effectively outsourced all this messy financial stuff to loans agencies which themselves look to state buyout or under-writing to cope with rising levels of default (including non-repayment from those earning below the repayment threshold). All of this is happening in the US, Australia and England if we need any ‘real world’ examples. Indeed, some argue that this is a sweeping under the carpet of the funding issue, passing the problem onto the next generation. (It may be no surprise that such a model was developed in the UK context under the government that also adopted PFI for funding new schools and hospitals, where the repayment terms are a major burden over the long term, whilst the current crop of politicians get the opportunity to open shiny new buildings.)

So what is the solution? Well, there is no avoiding the fact that public services need to be paid for, but that is the basis for our taxation system and we need to ‘be realistic’ about ensuring that those systems are truly progressive (to ensure the social and economic justice basis) and that there is little scope for avoidance and evasion. If universities are, as many claim in their mission statements, really concerned about civic engagement, the building of a better society and knowledge for knowledge’s sake, then that carries with it a responsibility that extends beyond the current year’s financial spreadsheet. Yes, it may well mean that they need to reconsider how they operate, what their priorities are, but if they do it properly then there is huge scope for a renewed partnership with society that in the longer term will bring more benefit than a decoupling, self-aggrandising policy that outsources current problems to future generations.


Image: (CC) Attribution: wonderlane from flickr.com